WASHINGTON - A Pentagon report on an incident in which U.S. Marines shot and killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians last November will show that those killings were deliberate and worse than initially reported, a Pennsylvania congressman said Wednesday.
"There was no firefight. There was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed those innocent people," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said during a news conference on Iraq. "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them. And they killed innocent civilians in cold blood. That is what the report is going to tell."
Murtha's comments were the first on-the-record remarks by a U.S. official characterizing the findings of military investigators looking into the Nov. 19 incident. Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and an opponent of Bush administration policy in Iraq, said he hadn't read the report but had learned about its findings from military commanders and other sources.
Military public affairs officers said the investigation isn't completed and declined to provide further information. "There is an ongoing investigation," said Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. "Any comment at this time would be inappropriate."
Both Gibson and Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said that the military has yet to decide what, if any action, might be taken against Marines involved in the incident.
"It would be premature to judge any individual or unit until the investigation is complete," Irwin said. Said Gibson, "No charges have been made as we have to go through the entire investigatory process and determine whether or not that is a course of action."
Three Marine commanders whose troops were involved in the incident were relieved of duty in April, but the Marines didn't link their dismissals to the incident, saying only that Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of 1st Marine Division, had lost confidence in the officers' ability to command. Gibson reiterated that point Wednesday. "It's important to remember that the officers were relieved by the commanding general of 1st Marine Division as a result of events that took place throughout their tour of duty in Iraq," he said.
The dismissed officers were Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and two of his company commanders, Capt. James S. Kimber and Capt. Lucas M. McConnell. Gibson said all three have been assigned to staff jobs with the 1st Division.
U.S. military authorities in Iraq initially reported that one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians traveling in a bus were killed by a roadside bomb in the western Iraq insurgent stronghold of Haditha. They said eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing firefight.
But Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the ground commander of coalition forces in Iraq, ordered an investigation on Feb. 14 after a reporter with Time magazine told military authorities of allegations that the Marines had killed innocent civilians.
After CNN broke the news of the initial investigation in March, military officials told Knight Ridder that the civilians were killed not in the initial blast but were apparently caught in the crossfire of a subsequent gun battle as 12 to 15 Marines fought insurgents from house to house over the next five hours. At that time, military officials told Knight Ridder that four of the civilians killed were women and five were children.
Subsequent reporting from Haditha by Time and Knight Ridder revealed a still different account of events, with survivors describing Marines breaking down the door of a house and indiscriminately shooting the building's occupants.
Twenty-three people were killed in the incident, relatives of the dead told Knight Ridder.
The uncle of one survivor, a 13-year-old girl, told Knight Ridder that the girl had watched the Marines open fire on her family and that she had held her 5-year-old brother in her arms as he died. The girl shook visibly as her uncle relayed her account, too traumatized to recount what happened herself.
"I understand the investigation shows that in fact there was no firefight, there was no explosion that killed the civilians on a bus," Murtha said. "There was no bus. There was no shrapnel. There was only bullet holes inside the house where the Marines had gone in. So it's a very serious incident, unfortunately. It shows the tremendous pressure these guys are under every day when they're out in combat and the stress and consequences."
Murtha, who retired as a colonel after 37 years in the Marine Corps, said nothing indicates that the Iraqis killed in the incident were at fault.
"One man was killed with an IED," Murtha said, referring to a Marine killed by the roadside bomb. "And after that, they actually went into the houses and killed women and children."
Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Steven Thomma contributed to this report.
© 2006 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources